Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Yanqui U.X.O.

There's a scene in Mulholland Drive. Two guys are in a diner, and they're talking about a dream that the one guy had, a dream which is eliciting a certain deja vu response for the one guy. He talks about a man that he saw in his dream, outside that very diner, and how the man's face hasn't left his mind since. So they pay their bill, they head outside, and they set off to investigate whether he is really there.

It's the middle of the day, the sun is out, and while everything about the scene looks normal in the sense that any scene can look normal, there's still something about it that just feels off, and it is from this that what should be an everyday occurrence is given this unbelievable wave of tension. The scene is paced at a furious crawl as the two men head towards the alley, their view of which is blocked off by a white, graffiti-tagged wall, and everything about the scene gives the viewer that horror movie feeling that something bad is about to happen.

When the two men reach a certain point, they witness nothing more than a dishevelled homeless man, but it is the way that this reveal happens, as if he glides in to the camera's eyeline like some sort of ghastly apparition, that makes it such a startling and memorable scene. Whether or not this was the dream itself or whether the homeless man was the same man from the dream and the entire scene was a sort of pre-meditated deja vu is left purposefully unclear. Nothing bad happens in the slasher flick way we are lead to expect will happen, but the overall result is more terrifying and unsettling because of it. What could just have been a trivial scare is lent a surreal, nightmarish quality, where the build-up takes prominence over the conclusion.

The reason I make this comparison is Yanqui U.X.O. holds within it the same dream-weary feeling of something that's just not quite right, from the eerie hum that guides along "09-15-00 (Part 1)", to the idling corkscrew guitar line of "Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls", to the shrill, frantic, yet oddly peaceful ending notes of "Motherfucker - Redeemer (Part 2)", which comes off almost like a rendition of "We'll Meet Again" amongst the proverbial calamity and destruction that just transpired. Godspeed You! Black Emperor have always been considered one of the most influential bands in the development of post-rock, and this is an entirely deserved title once one sees the incredible control of mood and atmosphere within their pieces; they are like an auteur honing his craft, managing his audience's expectations masterfully by making thorough use of every scene, every shot. And while Yanqui U.X.O. isn't usually considered to be Godspeed's best work, I think it shows a great band at their artistic peak, as it shows them craft some of the most beautiful and unsettling songs of their career.

Where this shows off is in the variety and experimentation shown on Yanqui U.X.O. A lot of the instrumental work feels completely dissociated from the expected sounds of the respective instruments. Drums carry with them the memory of the slow, steady march into war. The wail of a violin is turned into the tuneful drone of a flickering fluorescent light, or maybe the whistling of the wind as it flies by Major Kong's face. Guitars echo all sorts of elaborate pitches, warbling along amongst the expansive atmosphere of noise and reverb. That the instruments come across so detached, so fragmented in their composition works to give the feel that something here is not right.

And no doubt that's the point. GY!BE have always been a heavily political band; the picture below (which comes within the liner notes for Yanqui U.X.O.) shows the link between each major record label, the subsidiary that owns them, and factories that manufacture weapons and missiles for the American military.

Taking this as well as a number of other re-occurring motifs from this album into account, we can see Yanqui U.X.O. (with U.X.O. standing for "unexploded ordnance", weapons that were fired but didn't explode) as something of an attempt to capture the pervasive mood of its time. In America, the late 90's to very early 00's (the time in which this album was written and recorded) are always referred to as a 'boom' time, be it due to the explosion of internet business, the economic policies of the Clinton administration, or just the natural ebb and flow of the market system. The economy was good and as such, the generalization goes that people were living well. And yet at this very time, numerous bombing campaigns were being run overseas, in Serbia, in the Middle-East, where far poorer people in far poorer nations were feeling the brunt of political decisions they had no hand in making. Whether these political decisions were justified isn't relevant; what is relevant is that there's something that just doesn't feel right to such a massive discrepancy in the value of life that occurs when one draws a line between us and them, when dividing between which people deserve to live at the expense of their fellow human beings. The sad, echoic drums that pace "Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls" almost seem to recognize the fate of those below, but they can provide little but solemnity for the loss.

Of course, that doesn't really tell you what the album is like at all, only the perceived meanings behind it. So what then is Yanqui U.X.O.? Yanqui U.X.O. is that feeling of something not quite right, of that pang of guilt that comes with success at the undeserved folly of another. It's that feeling of sinister lurking behind a bright, sunny day - or perhaps, behind a white, graffiti-tagged wall. It's the sense you get out of a dissociative high that renders everything around you remains recognizable, but leaves the meaning behind them blurred and detached. It is sorrow and it is confusion, and it occurs within a state of affairs wherein the line between the two becomes so blurred as to be entirely inseparable. Yet it is also an utterly transcendent album, beautifully strange and delightfully eerie, moving and tragic, an album that is poignant and unique without saying a single word.

Yanqui U.X.O.


Leonard Miller said...

I think this is their weakest CD. Shame it was their swan song as a collective.
The production just isn't as good as the others. The compositions aren't as strong.

cretin said...

a lot of people feel that way, but I've never been one of them. this was the first Godspeed record I got into, and it's still my favourite, although just barely beating out the similarly fantastic Lift Yr Skinny Fists for that spot. although I can easily agree that it's a shame that this was their last album, although some of the Silver Mt. Zion releases comes close in quality to GY!BE.